Fear of crime and perception of safety

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For decades, terrorism has been present in many European cities, threating citizens’ safety and security – real and perceived – and putting at risk the democratic values and the rights and liberties which  citizens enjoy in Europe. As stated inthe Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU, published in December 2020, “recent attacks on European soil (Nice, Paris, Vienna) have served as a sharp reminder that terrorism remains a real and present danger.” The consequences of the terrorist threat have become particularly visible in the wake of recent attacks occurring in densely crowded or highly symbolic spaces within European cities and have rendered public spaces increasingly vulnerable. As the terrorist threat evolves and the nature of attacks shifts, so must the responses and security measures implemented by local authorities to protect citizens and public spaces.

Before deciding which mitigation measures should be put in place to respond to a given vulnerability identified in a public space, one must consider the effects that terrorism might have on society. Terrorist acts have many varied impacts upon cities. The most obvious is the direct impact on infrastructure and on lives, from a psychological point of view, due to victims’ trauma and the overall experience of the population confronted with the perils, but terrorism also indirectly impacts  cities’ inhabitants in many other ways:

  • Impact on the economy: In addition to the direct consequence of property damage, tourism is highly impacted, due to the influence that feelings of insecurity and a fear of terrorism can have on the behaviour of tourists. A reduction in tourism has been highly visible in cities that have suffered from terrorist attacks. For example, at the beginning of December 2015[1],a professional study on the hotel industry confirmed that occupancy rates fell significantly in Paris in the week following the November 13 attacks.
  • Increasing xenophobia and discrimination: By exploiting social and cultural inequalities within societies, terrorism may provoke discriminatory acts and encourage aggressive attitudes toward Muslims, migrants, and other minorities and communities. Terrorism often also dehumanizes and marginalizes minority groups, making the public believe that members of these groups are complicit in terrorist acts and are therefore criminals.
  • Impact on citizens’ rights: Terrorism clearly has areal and direct impact on human rights, with devastating consequences for victims’ enjoyment of the right to life, liberty and physical integrity. In addition to these individual costs, terrorism can destabilize governments, undermine civil society, jeopardize peace and security, and threaten social and economic development. These consequences all also have a real impact on the protection and preservation of human rights[2]. Furthermore, responses aiming to address terrorist threats might create an atmosphere of super-surveillance among citizens. In recent years, in fact, civil society liberties have in some cases become threatened by current practices of securitisation[3]. A majority of respondents (55%) to the Eurobarometer 2015 think that citizens’ rights and freedoms have been restricted for reasons related to the fight against terrorism and crime. On top of this, the discourse of insecurity seems to have proliferated and security actions that used to be considered exceptions to the rule are now more widely used[4]. This trend definitely has an impact of people’s feelings of security because, according to the Eurobarometer, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms is thought to have the most positive impact on one’s personal sense of security – 42% of respondents say this[5].
  • Impact on feelings of insecurity: In a more generalised way, terrorist acts have an impact on citizens' feelings of insecurity  and thus change the way they live their lives and make use of public spaces. Though motives may vary, the ultimate goal of a terrorist attack is to instill fear in the population. Fear can provoke physiological and behavioural reactions in the face of a threat that is either real or perceived, immediate or anticipated.[6]

Because public spaces are vital to urban life, they constitute essential places where the social and physical dynamics related  to fear of crime and perceptions of safety manifest. Thus, it is paramount to mainstream the inclusion of prevention, protection, reaction and anticipation within urban security policies in order to ensure safer public spaces that remain open, accessible and inclusive for all users. An integrated and global approach to securing public spaces should combine both short and long-term solutions. In other words, we must not just consider physical security measures (bollard, VSB, concrete blocks, barrier, etc.). Effectively protecting and preserving public spaces requires a broader approach that takes into account physical and social factors. Criteria such as visibility, accessibility, clarity, attractiveness etc. should be included in the Planning, Design and Management strategy for security in public spaces. Before implementing local strategies to ensure integrated and sustainable local policies, local authorities should consider a number of factors, such as:

  • What is the level of knowledge about the influence of the lived environment on crime and safety?

If there is no consistent and evidenced-based knowledge of pre-existing factors, one runs the risk of enacting a “fishing trip-approach” – a situation where there is an attempt to discover information and generate new knowledge, without any prior definition or hypothesis of what it may be.

  • Is there a systematic, integrated and rational risk management approach towards operations for securing public spaces?

Very much in line with the CPTED principle of the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach, it is necessary to monitor and evaluate any interventions in order to ensure follow-up and identify what works and what doesn’t.

  • Are comprehensive guides of regional, national and European standards and regulations concerning security for public spaces accessible ?

In order to avoid the commodification of security, it is important to encourage relevant supranational institutions like the European Commission to further develop common EU guidance material, including encouraging harmonisation of standards and exchanging good practices to support the protection of public spaces.

  • Are planning practices towards a safe environment really inclusive?

It is important to be aware of the fact that implementing protection measures can potentially lead to exclusionary practices in urban public spaces and lead to bias in public engagement.

  • Are architects, planners, private security providers, non-governmental organisations, civil society bodies etc.  aware of their roles in promoting and safeguarding security?

Security is a common good and a fundamental component of democratic societies. Given the multifaceted aspects of security and the increasing role of multiple stakeholders, the question of co-production must hold a prominent place. Otherwise, there is a risk of leaving security and safety in the hands of the few. [21]

Understanding the concepts: fear of crime and perception of safety

Very often, the feeling of insecurity is confused with the perception of insecurity. The latter relates to the situational conditions of a space and how its physical and social characteristics  can generate/influence people's perceptions (e.g. poorly maintained spaces, poor lighting, very closed-in spaces…). While perceived levels of safety often do not always correspond to fear levels, they can evoke fear in some individuals and can therefore exacerbate pre-existing levels of fear[7]. Fear can also transform some public places into no-go areas, negatively impacting local prosperity[8].

According to the BSFS benchmarking report on the real or perceived security at the local level, the urban safety community deems measures of perceptions of insecurity to be highly  important because negative perceptions affect the local community’s wellbeing and their use of public space, as well as their trust in fellow members of the community. It is this perception that ultimately affects people’s behaviour in the urban environment (e.g. avoiding certain places or certain routes, feeling anxious in certain situations) and it is therefore crucially important  to identify the reasons and causes of poor perceptions of safety within certain public spaces. While some authors use the two concepts interchangeably, fear of crime differs from the perception of safety measurement because it includes a psychological and physiological reaction to the perceived environment.

Individual and social factors such as gender, age, socio-economic status, prior victimisation, ethnicity, media influences, neighbourhood factors, level of neighbourhood cohesion, specific locations, and global levels of (in)security influence individuals’ levels of fear. Many authors evoke the ‘paradox of crime and fear’, because levels of fear are increasing despite decreasing crime rates, especially when it comes to serious, violent crime[9].

In understanding the phenomenon, it is important to go beyond crime figures by integrating indicators to better qualify the perception of insecurity. For example, field surveys reveal the influence of the living environment on inhabitants’ perceptions of insecurity (in particular cases, lack of cleanliness is a factor in increasing feelings of insecurity, even when rates of delinquency are in fact on the decline).

Effects of terrorist acts on citizen's fear of crime

Terrorist attacks have a direct impact on fear of crime at the individual level. A study carried out directly after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings found, based on a web-based survey of 504 students, showed that the perceived risk of future attacks is a robust indicator for the fear of terrorism and the influence of individual-level fear of crime in general not only terrorism.  Although the likelihood of being a victim of terrorism is much lower than for other types of crime, the psychological impact may be more significant at the individual level, with consequences on how people perceive and use public spaces.

Terrorism is a high impact crime, and the consequences of terrorist acts maymanifest in broadly different  and multi-dimensional ways. One aspect worth mentioning is the increased perception of insecurity.

The “terrorisation” process can vary from one city to another. According to the latest FRA report (2020) on fear in Europe, city size correlates to  variations between triggers of fear. For example, people living in larger cities tend to be more fearful of crime in the form of terrorist attacks, especially if they have previously experienced such crimes in their city. This is also confirmed by the Eurobarometer report, published in 2015[10]: after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, France, issues relating to terrorism and extremist ideologies were seen as persistent threats to European citizens.

Terrorism is seen as the EU’s most important security challenge. Since 2011, the proportion of people identifying terrorism and religious extremism as important challenges has increased substantially: 65% of respondents to the 2020 FRA survey deem terrorism to be a “very important” internal security challenge for the EU, and 92% deem it to be “important”. Nevertheless, there are vast variations in perceptions of security across EU member states. According to the same survey, a substantial majority of Europeans feel secure, whether in their immediate neighbourhood or in the EU as a whole, but the wider and more remote the space/focus area gets, the more this feeling of security decreases. The results also show strong regional variations, with respondents in Northern Europe, most notably in Denmark and Finland, more likely to totally agree that their neighbourhood, city/town or country is a secure place to live. Respondents in Southern and Eastern Europe – especially in Slovakia, Bulgaria and Italy – are the least likely to totally agree with these three items. This regional trend is also present when considering security at the EU level.

The FRA survey (2020) also revealed the need to strike the correct balance between “reassurance policing” and an excessive  police presence in order to avoid increasing anxieties associated with too great or too small a police presence. This indicator might be specific to the size of the  city as well as to the tolerance level in the institution, especially in law enforcement agencies  of a particular city or country.

Concerning  the complexity  of relations  between the  global,  regional and  local levels, cities and their public spaces are always both global and local since they are places  where both  global  and national  policies  are applied  and  experienced. Furthermore,   public  spaces   represent   the  heart   of   cities.  Because   their characteristics  and  users are  varied  (totally open,  partially  open, controlled-access, etc.), cooperating to efficiently manage public spaces' safety and security is complex: many stakeholders are involved, all with different interests, roles, mandates and expectations. Yet, the planning, management and animation of public spaces deriving from such interactions between stakeholders have an impact on safety and on the feeling of insecurity.  When it comes to the interplay between feelings of insecurity and public spaces, it has been noted that a combination of socioeconomic and spatial factors might influence/tap into people’s perceptions of security when using public spaces[11]. It is thus fundamental to thoroughly analyse such factors in order to understand public spaces’ vulnerabilities and therefore make informed decisions regarding  the best security measures to implement in order to make public spaces safer.

How can physical protection measures in public spaces reinforce citizens’ perception of security?

As mentioned above, security has arguably become to be seen as a greater issue for Europeans in recent years. In the Special Eurobarometer on “Europeans’ Attitudes Toward Security” from March 2015 and , European citizens consider terrorism to be the EU’s most important security challenge[12]. However, the level of concern varies considerably from country to country. In order to fully understand Europeans’ concerns surrounding security, and terrorism in particular, it is important to consider and analyse citizens’ overall awareness, experiences and perceptions of security by looking at a whole host of areas: overall perceptions of security and threats, perceptions of actions taken by the police and other law enforcement authorities to combat these threats and security measures as responses to security challenges (technologies or physical protective measures).

According to the latest edition of the Eurobarometer report into Europeans’ attitudes towards security, the majority of people are generally positive about the impact of new technologies, although a quarter of those surveyed think they will have a negative impact on citizens’ security[13]. Besides technologies, a lot can be done to deter and mitigate the impact of terrorist attacks, while maintaining the attractiveness and openness of public spaces. Numerous studies have shown that the planning, design and management of public spaces have an impact on security and on feelings of insecurity.

Research has shown that late-stage ad-hoc solutions intended to secure public spaces against threats can in fact be detrimental, not only for the aesthetics of such spaces but also, first and foremost, for public perceptions of security[14]. Bollards, sturdy posts, concrete blocks and other similar physical features should be put in place only when there is no other option, and only as a complementary security measure. Good public space design and management requires a broader and more comprehensive approach to urban planning. Otherwise, we run the risk of “bunkerizing” our cities, creating an environment in which public spaces more closely resemble defensive war zones than spaces for assembly and exchange.

When it comes to implementing efficient security measures for the protection of public spaces, local authorities must take into account a cost-benefit assessment that considers both the financial and the social costs of the solutions and their short and mid-to-long term impact.

Temporary security solutions that respond to risks or incidents that are context, time and place specific instead of investing solely in permanent solutions might contribute to lessening fear and perceptions of insecurity in the short term. Highly visible security measures – such as roadblocks and vehicle security barriers – which are deliberately implemented for specific and highly political occasions, such as visitations from Heads of State,will most likely be perceived as a necessary burden, and the same is true for for security measures implemented in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack/attempt. But if these security measures remain in place  for an extended period of time they will likely act as a constant reminder ofterrorism and will thus augment fear and feelings of insecurity. They may thus in fact help terrorists to reach their goals of spreading fear and terror[15].

Many different approaches and initiatives coexist in the domain of security and protection of public spaces. Amongst these, Crime Prevention through Urban Design and Planning (CP-UDP) and Security by Design are of particular note for our analysis. Despite their different principles and applications, these approaches both seek to achieve the right balance between offering effective protection against security threats and preserving people’s individual and collective fundamental rights.

A Security by Design approach for the protection of public spaces is an approach that takes into account the aesthetic, open and economic nature of a public space. This approach can help balance efforts to increase urban resilience whilst promoting the open and inclusive character of such spaces, because it is integrated into a broader framework that considers the vulnerabilities of a public space alongside considerations of aesthetics, liveability, use, safety, management etc. Security measures that are conceived from the very initial stages of the design process are less likely to conflict with existing services and utilities and can be better integrated into the surrounding environment. Such measures can thus positively influence citizens’ perceptions of public spaces. Security is therefore best achieved if addressed from the very beginning of the planning and design process[16].

CP-UDP seeks to positively impact the behavior of human users by both embedding  protective physical features and encouraging prosocial behavior through good design and place management. In its most widely-recognised name, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) follows a number of principles which can be summarized as follows:

It is a multi-hazard approach that can be used to prevent crimes (including terrorism), anti-social behaviour and feelings of insecurity (fear of crime) on a multi-stakeholder and place-specific basis.

By considering both physical and social strategies, as well as addressing various different actors at the local level, the CPTED approach has proven to be successful in terms of the planning, design and management of public spaces and has contributed to reducing both crime itself and the fear of crime[17].

Challenges & opportunities of Crime prevention through urban design and planning (CP-UDP) and Security by Design

Despite the comprehensive and integrated approaches of Security by Design and CPTED in implementing physical security measures that do not negatively impact the openness and attractiveness of a public space, unintended consequences may still arise and negatively influence citizens’ perceptions of safety and feelings of security. In order to avoid both a super-surveillance society and the commodification of security[18], local authorities must constantly seek balanced approaches towards the implementation of physical barriers in coordination with urban planners, architects, civil society and all relevant local actors.

It is important not to overlook the downsides of security barriers: they can sometimes offer a reassuring sense of protection, but if not tested/ analysed with regards to  the lethal effects on people in case of a real incident, they can result in more harm than safety. Christian Schneider’s “What if scenario study” of the Berlin Breitscheidplatz attack illustrates how a well-intended concrete block can quickly become a dangerous projectile which may itself injure and kill people[19]. Such barriers, which may at first glance appear to be highly cost-effective solutions, may ultimately result in high human losses and social costs.

Furthermore, is it important to be aware that implementing protection measures can potentially lead to exclusionary practices in urban public spaces. Street furniture that uses barriers and objects like metal spikes make some spaces unwelcoming for certain population groups, such as homeless people. Multi-sensors like apps, mobile phones, and body-cameras have introduced the concept of  sousveillance in the public space[20]. The term "sousveillance" denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

How can these noxious effects be mitigated and prevented? As challenges and risks in public spaces evolve, so must the solutions in their planning, design and management evolve towards a more inclusive  and versatile design. Especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, where new means of interaction requiring social distancing are necessary, it is crucial to effectively integrate all residents and stakeholders into a comprehensive local security strategy for public spaces. The opportunities that applying Crime Prevention through Urban Design and Planning (CP-UDP) and Security by Design can bring to local authorities are manyfold: they allow stakeholders to work together in a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral way, they allow stakeholders and local authorities to tackle multiple risks and threats and to reach tailor-made solutions but also to genuinely reduce fear and perceptions of insecurity. In this respect, the integration of artistic concepts greatly contributes to the integration of physical measures into the surrounding landscape and constitutes an additional layer in citizen’s perceptions of security.

[1] Jean-Paul Huchon (2016), Rapport au premier ministre sur la destination France après les attentats. Diagnostic et propositions. Available on line: https://www.banquedesterritoires.fr/sites/default/files/ra/Le%20rapport%20de%20Jean-Paul%20Huchon%20sur%20la%20destination%20France%20apr%C3%A8s%20les%20attentats..pdf

[2] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, Fact Sheet No. 32 Available online: https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/factsheet32en.pdf

[3] European Commission, Directorate-General for Research & Innovation (2011) Crime and deviance in the EU: Key findings from EU funded social sciences and humanities research projects, EUR 24858 EN

[4] Ibid

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_432_en.pdf 

[6] Mariusz Czepczyński, professor at the University of Gdańsk and a member of the PACTESUR expert  committee. Presentation made in the framework of the PACTESUR’s Annual Meeting Edinburgh 20-21 February 2020.

[7]Mateja Mihinjac and Dominic Kudlacek (2021), ‘Benchmarking regarding the use of the BSFS evaluation-categories on the real or perceived security at the local level,  BSFS project (2021),  co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative under grant agreement number UIA04-274

[8] Morgan (1978), A Critical Analysis of Permissive Attitudes Toward Juvenile Delinquency In Britain Is Presented, available at: https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/delinquent-fantasies.

[9] Tulumello, S. (2014). Local policies for urban security and spatial planning in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area: The cases of Lisbon, Cascais and Barreiro Municipalities (p. 79). In Mateja Mihinjac and Dominic Kudlacek (2021)

[10] Eurobarometer (2017, available at: https://data.europa.eu/euodp/data/dataset/S1569_87_4_464B_ENG

[11] Ethnographic and social research on local perception of urban security at night-time. Factsheet project ToNite

[12]  Eurobarometer, Europeans’ attitudes towards security (2015, 2017)


[13] 2015 https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_432_en.pdf

[14] Design Against Terrorism: soft targets and safe public places. Urban Planning, Design and Management against ram raiders. Paul van Soomeren, Rob van Dijk, Hein Stienstra.

[15] Ibid.


[17] Paul Van Soomeren, DSP

[18] Ceccato (2019) intro to the special Issue: Crime and Control in the Digital Era

[19] https://inibsp.de/

[20]Ceccato (2019) intro to the special Issue: Crime and Control in the Digital Era

[21] Efus Manifesto, Security, Democracy and Cities. 2017 Barcelona